Gates: Do We Really Need 11 Carrier Strike Groups?
Bob Gates continues to make his return to government service from the pleasant confines of College Station count. He’s cut costly programs, ordered women to be allowed to serve on submarines, and is ending the ban on gays openly serving on his timetable. Like these changes or hate them, they’re big.
Now, he’s going after the Navy budget.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been pushing to change the course of the US military, scrapping expensive programs he sees as marginal and arguing for cheaper, more relevant platforms — and now he has set his sights on the Navy and Marine Corps.
For years Mr. Gates has called out the Air Force for demanding expensive aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, a $140-million-a-copy stealth fighter that the defense secretary has now essentially discontinued. But in a time of tight budgets, even for the US military, Gates seems intent on spreading the pain. Now, it’s the sea services’ turn.
At a conference outside Washington hosted by the Navy League, Gates on Monday singled out aircraft carriers and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle as two examples that need Pentagon reevaluation.
The Navy’s aircraft carriers, he told the Navy-Marine Corps audience, represent an example of the US military’s conventional military might — power that is unmatched by any nation. But he asked whether the US needs to maintain 11 aircraft carriers and their attending ships — known as a carrier strike group — for decades to come.
“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other counry has one?” the Pentagon chief said. “Any future plans must address these realities.” The Ford class of carriers is being built now.
Likewise, the Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a tracked vehicle that looks like a tank for water, is capable of carrying marines ashore during an amphibious assault. But the star quality of the vehicle, which has been in development since the 1980s and won’t be operational for another year or so, has faded because of performance problems and cost overruns.
In his speech, Gates noted that the capability the vehicle provides was needed in the past, most recently during the first Gulf War. Today may be a different story, he said. “We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again — especially as advances in antiship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from ashore,” Gates said. “On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?”
While I study international security for a living, I’m far from expert on maritime strategy. But Gates is asking the right questions here.
A few months back, I took part in the Navy’s distinguished visitor program, spending 24 hours aboard the USS Eisenhower. Both the vessel and its crew were extremely impressive. The amount of firepower and flexibility represented by a carrier group is enormous and likely well worth the cost, given our budget. But I don’t know anyone who really thinks we need eleven of them. My inclination would be to figure out how many we’ll plausibly need and add two. But my strong guess is that would still leave us well short of eleven. And, given the margin of advantage between us and the next strongest maritime power, the need for the Ford class is less than obvious.
And the likelihood of a massive amphibious landing akin to that on Omaha Beach is slightly less than that of a division-strength airborne landing.